With the County about to update land use and zoning regulation guidelines this Fall, one of the biggest and most talked about proposed changes is increasing homeowner rights to build an “accessory dwelling unit,” or ADU, on their property. Current regulations require a permit to build an ADU which can only be done on an owner-occupied property within the dwelling. It must share a wall with the original house and cannot be built in a detached garage, breezeway, or separate building. As currently regulated, ADUs are often used to house elderly relatives or adult children. Proposed changes would allow completely separate apartment units to be built on residential lots with the purpose of renting to the public.

Arguments are being made that this change will help fill a need for “missing middle” housing, a term used to describe housing that would be affordable to middle income ranges, such as for teachers, police and fire personnel. Many of our County service providers live outside the County. The reason this type of housing is “missing” is because fees are allowed to be paid by developers to not build the currently required percentage of projects to be priced for moderate incomes. Thus, the units end up being concentrated in lower market value areas, if they are built at all. 

Some feel the solution to this problem is to stop the fee-in-lieu allowance, or at least significantly raise the fee that developers pay to avoid building the lower priced units in their projects. Stopping or raising the fee should result in more units being built for moderate incomes spread out across the County. Others feel the answer is to change zoning regulations to allow higher numbers of units to be built in the same space, such as increasing duplexes, triplexes, etc. There are few multiplex type smaller homes in Howard County, which could potentially be more affordable to people with moderate incomes. In the right geographic area, such as where County services, parking, and adequate stormwater management are available, this type of growth supply could work.

Where new multiplex zoning can be planned and placed where it makes sense, ADUs are far more tricky. ADUs retrofit existing lots, as they allow current single-family homeowners to build in their yards. This proposal has to be considered very carefully, because not all neighborhoods are the same. On one hand, ADUs could be a great way to provide rental income for homeowners, especially the aging population wanting to remain in their homes. It could also provide lower rents than other sources of apartment living, old or new.

On the other hand, if the County implements ADUs by allowing anyone, anywhere to build them, then neighborhoods could be overwhelmed with parking, flooding and other infrastructure problems. Practically doubling the number of homes in a neighborhood from the amount it was planned to accommodate is fraught with serious challenges. 

The solution for this literal YIMBY (yes In my backyard) issue is to manage requests on a case-by-case basis. ADUs need to be handled conditionally, by going through a County approval process with each permit having a hearing, so the area can be analyzed as to whether it is a safe, productive fit. Many zoning types have these “conditional” uses and ADUs should be placed in that category.

 In addition, there is a big picture issue regarding how ADUs are allowed to be done. If they are allowed automatically, everywhere, it changes the very nature of single-family zoning. Changes must not include an automatic doubling of allowable numbers of homes to be built by new projects. Doubling new building projects would wreck our already struggling County infrastructure. Let the Council know how you feel about this issue at [email protected]